TRAVELOGUE, Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch)
"'Kiss my ass,' I said and I threw my drink/tequila trickling down his business suit" began a song on 1998's Taming The Tiger, and it seems to sum up Joni Mitchell's relationship with the whole conglomeration of media, musicians and record labels that loosely defines the music industry.
Widely acknowledged as the mother of modern singer-songwriting, Mitchell nevertheless insists that she has never had her due. For the female singer-songwriters who have followed in her footsteps, attempting to match her masterly melding of melody and verse, she has nothing but scorn. That none of them will write a melody as hair-raisingly beautiful as "The Last Time I Saw Richard" or a lyric as profoundly elegant as "For The Roses" is of little comfort to her. The only writers she compares herself to, she has said, are Bob Dylan and Shakespeare.
Now she claims to have quit the "currupt cesspool" for good. And Travelogue, her latest and possibly last album, does have the feel of finality about it. Twenty-two showpieces from Mitchell's back catalogue - the oldest, "The Circle Game", written in 1966, the most recent a pair of songs from 1994's Turbulent Indigo - rearranged for 70-piece orchestra, jazz rhythm section and occasional choir, with Mitchell's voice out in front. Gaze on this body of work and wonder, it seems to say. And kiss my ass while you're at it.
Though the best of her records - eg, 1970's Blue - remain ageless, some now sound dated; the prissy fingerpicking of Song To A Seagull, the technology-drenched production of Dog Eat Dog. So Mitchell has sought to free some of her best songs by resetting them in a timeless genre of her own devise - part swing, part Hollywood score, part orchestral art-song.
American arranger Vince Mendoza (whose CV includes numerous scores for European big bands and symphony orchestras, a collaboration with Bjork on her Dancer in the Dark soundtrack, and arrangements for Mitchell's earlier orchestral experiment Both Sides Now) has extrapolated from Mitchell's songs subtle, varied orchestrations that at times recall Gil Evan's work with Miles Davis. He proves his empathy early in the album, painting the "burning desert" of the opening verse of "Amelia" in almost visibly shimmering chords, then adding chilly little dissonances as Mitchell flies to the "icy altitudes" of the song's final lines. It's masterly stuff.
As for Mitchell's voice, beaten down by smoke and years, it has gained in texture what it has lost in top-end. It gives new meaning to a song such as "Woodstock", making it less the hippie reverie and more a remembrance of paradise lost. Framed by a pair of songs representing visions of love and hate (adapted from the New Testament and W B Yeats, respectively), the new version is all the more poignant.
No doubt Mitchell would be happy to accept the mantle of seer, and Travelogue draws attention to the uncanny number of prophetic resonances in her songs. "While Muslims stick up Washington..." goes the refrain of "Otis and Marlena", unremarked when it first appeared a quarter-century ago. And there is "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", Mitchell's 1987 adaptation of Yeat's "The Second Coming", brimming with visions of impending apocalypse. "The wrath has finally taken form/For what is this rough beast/Its hour come at last", Mitchell sermonises. And to reinforce the images there are are paintings in the accompanying booklet, with surreal depictions of the Twin Towers, George Bush, Colin Powell and Osama bin Laden.
Travelogue is hardly flawless. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter - the main soloist, other than Mitchell - often seems adrift amid the lavish orchestrations. The choral voices in "The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" threaten to turn one of Mitchell's biblical adaptations into Andrew Lloyd Webber. And there are moments, as in "The Last Time I Saw Richard", when Mendoza's chords fail to match the crisp delicacy of Mitchell's original voicings. At other times the whole edifice threatens to topple under the weight of Mitchell's earnestness. Even the jokes are serious ("lawyers haven't been this popular/Since Robispierre slaughtered half of France", goes a couplet in the cheerless "Sex Kills").
At more than two hours in length, Travelogue can seem like hard work, and yet there are rewards for anyone prepared to make the effort. If, as Mitchell has hinted, she has composed her own epitaph, Travelogue is a worthy one, full of the beauty and fury that defines her. But it's too soon for epitaphs. However deep her disdain for the business she's in, she should remember her own defiant words, from 1972's "Judgement of the Moon and Stars":
You've got to shake your fists at lightning
You've got to roar like forest fire
You've got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They're going to aim the hoses on you
You show them you won't expire
Not 'til you burn up every passion
Not even when you die.
Listener - February 22 2003
ISSN 0110 5787